Remembrance Day 2020 - a tribute to James Pearson

As we remember those today that fell in Flanders Fields and in other armed conflicts, I wanted to pay a tribute in this blog (Remembrance Day November 2020) to a Watsonian Rugby player who played for the same club as me, the same position as me and who also played for Scotland.

He paid the ultimate sacrifice and was killed in action on the Battlefields of the Somme but until I visited his grave at Sanctuary Wood on the Southern Rim of the Ypres Salient did I realise that his rugby career was intertwined with mine!

James Pearson, ‘Peary’ to his pals – was born on 24th February 1888 and lived at 3 East Castle Road in Edinburgh close to where I grew up as a child. He attended George Watson’s College (as I did) from 1896-1907. Although short and light Peary became a giant on the sports field playing for both the First XI and First XV school teams, winning the 1907 School Championship against formidable opposition and becoming one the best known and loved Internationalists of his age.

Peary had good fortune to play alongside two future great internationalists, Eric Milroy and Alex Angus as well as the dominant Watsonian of the day, Sandy Morrison. Only Angus would survive the war as a Lt-Col in the Gordon Highlanders, winning the DSO and mentioned three times in despatches.

Those four were all good friends – chums or pals to use the phrase that was fashionable at this time. They socialised together and got involved in plenty of mischief as they were growing up.

Peary scored 103 tries and a total of 338 points for Watsonians during their golden age when the unofficial rugby football championship of Scotland was won on 4 consecutive seasons, 1908/09, 1909/10, 1911/12 and 1913/14. Watsonians’ success was based on players with footballing skills playing together in combination; the fulcrum being the half-backs and the centre three-quarters who were a superb mid-field quartet, including Peary. His speed as an athlete combined with his superb handling skills made him a centre-three quarter of international standard and he played 12 matches for Scotland.

His final appearance on a rugby pitch was at the Greenyards, Melrose playing in their 7s competition (it was known then as the Melrose Sports) in April 1914. The memorable moment happened when Peary gained possession behind the goal line and ran the length to score a try and win the Ladies cup. When the war broke out on 4 August 1914, Peary joined the Watsonian Military Training Corps led by his pal Sandy Morrison. Peary needed the training as he had never joined the school cadets. When the idea of a Pal’s Battalion collapsed Peary joined the 9th Royal Scots which became the first Edinburgh Territorial Regiment to go to the front. Arriving on 26 February 1915 in the Ypres Salient the Ninth were caught up in the aftermath of the world’s first gas attack at St Julien, where they were helping to stem the German advance.

On 27 April the Battalion was in Sanctuary Wood digging trenches frantically, under massive artillery bombardment as the Germans attempted to hammer their way to Ypres. The Ninth held its line until the night of 22-23 April when it was eventually relieved. It was Peary’s bad luck to be hit by a sniper just hours before he was due to leave Sanctuary Wood. He was going to get water for tea. His grave was destroyed by shellfire but miraculously found in 1930.

When I visited Sanctuary Wood back in 2019, I was aware of Peary’s story but as I knelt by his gravestone the story was re-told by one of my Watsonian colleagues, Graeme Sinclair. I too was a centre three-quarter capped by Scotland playing for Watsonians but what hit me like a tonne of bricks was when Graeme recalled the story of Peary scoring a try in the final of the Melrose 7s.

I also scored a try in the final of the Melrose 7s in 1996 and lifted the Ladies Cup just as Peary had done all those years ago. When Graeme mentioned that my visit to Peary’s stone was likely to have been the only time a Melrose 7s winner had visited his grave I was hugely touched and emotional that our rugby careers were so entwined.

Finally I wish to share an account from a comrade who came across Peary in Sanctuary Wood shortly after he had been shot:

“Sanctuary Wood has many memories but there is one that transcends all others – the sight of the wee white face with the little smile as we filed passed the little athlete lying in his last long sleep. Clad not in the panoply of greatness which he deserved, but in the common tunic and kilt of a private lying like a warrior taking rest, with a blood stained greatcoat around him. His name was known by thousands. Countless times he had thrilled them with his genius and now, in the sacred cause, he has laid down his life as a humble soldier. Never again will this little round-shouldered figure, with its long arms and gloved hands, gather a ball unerringly as of yore; but there must always be one spot in Sanctuary Wood that is forever hallowed in Scottish Rugger hearts – the resting-place of Jimmy P., peerless three-quarter, private soldier, and gentlemen.”

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